Archaeology is Poetry
On Monday my professor, a Ph.d from Harvard stated, “ Archaeology is poetry.” In other words, there are few if any verifiable facts, but many inferences and interpretations for the retrieval of artifacts.
We create stories. We look at the pieces from 3000-2920BCE and make links. The Narmer Palette shows us images and because the super- sized man on the plate is wearing both the North and the South crowns of Egypt, it is assumed that the big man is King Narmer, the first king to unite both parts of that country . We see apparently the first example of “ smiting” as this fellow with a lion’s tale, kilt and apron subjugates his enemy. Reminding me of Trojan’s Column from 129BC in Rome, both campaign victories are read in the registers or segments that circle from bottom to top- comic book style , and again recall for me Assisi stories that depict in narrative Christ’s birth.
It thrills.me that the so-called Mona Lisa of Uruk was constructed of mixed media, eyebrow once filled with bitchumen to darken, a wig now lost with only oversized eyes in alabaster gazing back at us, teasing that so many centuries ago, the ancients juxtaposed material to suggest a realistic verisimilitude. In The Palette we revisit two strange mythical animals called sepopards, part giraffe necks entwined that we have seen in a dynastic seal. An incredibly finely detailed piece referred to as The Ram in the Thickets from the city of Gilgamesh , where the biblical Abraham was born, are linked by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, although the artifact predates the Bible. I search for further “ evidence” of connection as our professor does speak to a famine, like a mini Ice age that destroyed artistic evidence of the time, but appears to be documented.
Chaim Bentorah writes,
The picture of a horned animal [ in The Ram in the Thicket] reaching for a high branch would bear out this date as this is when there was a 300 year draught in the land of Ur and goats or similar horned animals would have been reaching high on bushes to eat because such feeding in the wild was scarce due to the draught. Abraham lived or was born about 1815 BC so he would have been born during this draught and more significantly when this symbol of a horned animal reaching high on a branch to feed was a known symbol. No one really knows what the symbol represents.
The dates do not coalesce for me, but the yarn of the story is interesting and one Dvar Torah at Rosh Hashana actually spoke to the sacrifice of children to appease the gods at the time so perhaps Abrahams thinking of his pagan parents who worshipped idols and before he was a patriarch of the Jewish religion might connect the dots: of his bringing Isaac for slaughter. Bentorah’s article also says The Ram piece might portray an animal reaching for food and may just connote the animal’s desire to survive. Still it is magnificently realistic and delicately carved, but as my prof said, Woolley was an amazing showman. He further connects the story to Agatha Christie’s mystery book,Murder at Mesopotamia, and again I want to clap with delight as prehistoric and 1930’s are linked. With surprise, we ascertain that Christie’s second husband is Max Mallowan an archaeologist apprenticed to Woolley at the excavation at Ur.She reinvents the events in her mystery and puts Wooley’s wife at the centre of the mystery.
One story unfolding onto another- much like the Giza pyramid where the architect stacked one bench- like form , mustaba, into another five for King Khufu or Cheops finally reaching 139 metres, constructed in stone but laid out without special technology or tools but humble string! This layering of bench upon bench provided the.burial chambers for the king, one of three pyramids at Giza. Yet an incredible sculpture of Khufu and his wife, portrayed equally, king and consort, requires the plinth to keep him and his Mrs. from tumbling. Obviously architecture strides were superior to free standing sculpture.
Is the king of Egypt shown here godlike as the homely Tutankhamen was, or did he have to actually maintain an appearance of flat- stomached lean virility – as even King Djoser did in his pyramid complex where he was required to run in his underwear to demonstrate his power. Ironically this test of endurance sparks for me the trials of the poor holocaust souls made to demonstrate their fitness for work during camp selection during the Holocaust.
In a tiny article in Vogue Knitting, later verified by Atlas Obscura , we learn about in the prehistoric Bronze Age the discovery of a ball of wool, 3000 years old, only1 cm wide, found at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, similar to Italy’s Pompei. Also discovered was a bobbin with thread still wrapped around it.
Last night I share this information with my grandsons, ages 5 and 8, one interested in the colour of the prehistoric wool. This leads to notions of a time capsule and what we would bury in it. Again, one is worried that it must be buried deeply so as not to be looted. I suggest that a family picture might be a good idea so people of the future might discern how we dressed and intuit a relationship among the gathered group. I reflect that I keep celebration pictures on my walls to remind me of the good times we have shared, how young and happy we once looked, an image bridging past and my present that continues to move into the future. In time forward, will they have replaced batteries ? Will computers and cellphones evolved to chips injected into human brains and bodies?Depictions, art and musical objects are likely to be retained. Maybe grains- grains like barley that have persisted since the Bronze Age even? Truly it is miraculous that a ball of wool persisted at Must Farm, but as I explain to the boys, if it gets cold, you need something to cover your body and protect it. So clothes can provide information on climate, unless the future world is swamped in global warming and no clothes necessary- or bodies require protection from bugs and such.
It is hard to imagine the future, especially as my neighbourhood is being overwhelmed by condos, chicken coops as my father referred to them, particularly as evidence of the shops disappears. Would our parents imagined a handheld computer, snarls in traffic, chickencoops overrunning the streets?
Will there be new stories created beyond the ones we have grown up with? What poetry will be created by the artifacts of the Boomers?
I’m thankful for the beauty of a tree or flower, refuge from a uncertain world. But I suppose all generations, even from the Bronze Age felt similarly.